Former Mayor of Grand Rapids George Heartwell announced as 2030 Leadership Awardee for 2023

The U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan (USGBC-WM) announced Honorable George Heartwell, former Grand Rapids Mayor, as this year’s 2030 Leadership Award Winner. The 2030 Leadership Award recognizes organizations and individuals that have taken the initiative to decarbonize Grand Rapids and make strides toward global climate goals.

Mr. Heartwell served as Mayor of Grand Rapids for 12 years, from 2004-2016, and for 8 years as City Commissioner before that. Some of his most notable accomplishments include, but are not limited to:

  • The complete separation of storm and wastewater sewers and almost total elimination of untreated discharges to the River. 
  • In 2015, towards the end of his third term, the city had achieved an overall 25% conservation rate while experiencing modest growth in their water-customer base over the past 10 years. 
  • Invetment in renewable energy with about 26% of municipal demand being supplied by energy from renewable sources. 
  • Created an Office of Sustainability
  • Adopted renewable energy goals and a 5 year sustainability plan
  • Launched the vital streets campaign. 
  • The launch of the Grand Rapids 2030 District in December of 2015 with help from Mr. Heartwell and, alongside business, government, and community leaders. 

In April 2015, while announcing Grand Rapids as an emerging 2030 District, Mr. Heartwell was quoted as saying: “Cities continue to play an important role in addressing the root causes of climate change, and here in Grand Rapids we do that in partnership with our private sector partners. To help reach our goal of becoming a more resilient community we have taken up the Green District 2030 Challenge and are meeting it head-on.”

The relationship that was built between local government, utilties, building owners, and community stakeholders made a strong foundation for our 2030 district's success. Those relationships have also been key to our work with the Zero Cities Project {LINK} and now E.H. Zero {LINK}. Our team is grateful for his determination, support, and leadership for this effort. We are thrilled to recognize Mr. Heartwell for his work within the community in relation to the Grand Rapids 2030 District with the 2030 Leadership Award. 

The following content is an interview with Mr. Heartwell in regards to the 2030 Leadership Award:


Can you describe your experience initiating the Grand Rapids 2030 District - what were your goals, how did those change during the process, what were some challenges, etc.

Shortly after I took office in 2004 I set a renewable energy goal of 20% for the City of GR by 2008.  With aid from Consumers Energy, we met that goal, at which time I reset the goal to 100% by 2020.  GR was the first Michigan city to set 100% and among a handful nationwide that did so.  While my successor wisely reset the 100% goal for 2025, the City has made and continues to make, important progress toward that goal.  The Obama American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave cities block grant funds for energy efficiency and renewables.  We used ours to continue working on renewables while renovating City Hall with all new energy efficient windows and light fixtures.  When I learned, from Keith Winn, that architect Edward Mazria was starting an energy efficiency movement called 2030 Districts it fit perfectly within our plan.


Can you describe your sustainability journey over your time as City Mayor? What are some notable points or turning points in your journey?

After the election but prior to taking office, I formed a Mayor’s Environmental Advisory Council to help craft my environmental policy for the four years I was sure of having as Mayor.  The Council stayed together for all three of my terms and was hugely instrumental in advancing our environmental work.  Guy Bazanni helped me understand the importance of planting our environmental work under the sustainability Triple Bottom Line.  I immediately created an Office of Sustainability, initially staffed with 5 FTE Corky Overmeyer.  The City and GVSU shared the cost of a consultant, Norman Christopher, to help us do sustainability planning. After our plans were finished, Norman went to work full-time with GVSU and I hired a full time Sustainability Director, Dr. Haris Alibasic.  Without a person fully dedicated to this work, I am convinced, GR could not have advanced in sustainability as it did.   One note of pride: in 2004 I said that GR would become the most sustainable city in the nation.  People chuckled; my adversaries griped.  In 2010 the US Chamber of Commerce awarded GR its Siemens Sustainability prize as the nation’s most sustainable mid-sized city.


What does sustainability and a sustainable city mean to you? Has that changed since you left Office? Did that change over your 12 years as Mayor?

Sustainability is a process, a “journey” as some have called it, and not fixed outcome.  One success leads to another; one failure is cause for learning and correction.  Has my understanding changed?  Absolutely!  Has my dedication to the process changed?  Yes, it has grown.  I’m no longer in a position I once was in to directly impact a sustainable organization.  But sustainability has become the goal of every organizational board on which I serve.  As an example, Ferris State University on whose board I sit, with my urging, just adopted Sustainability as one of its four planning pillars for the upcoming Campus Master Plan and, again with my urging, the board adopted a LEED requirement for every new or renovated building.


How did your work with the Grand Rapids 2030 District continue after you left Office?

I was so pleased that Mayor Bliss embraced the 2030 District, added to its growth, and linked to other initiatives in the community.


How do you continue your passion for sustainability and environmental justice in your life today?

See bullet 3 above.  Plus, the new home we built in Newaygo County is heated and cooled with geothermal and passive solar; and three weeks ago we signed a contract to install ground-mounted solar to meet all our residential electric needs.


What does it mean to you to be awarded the 2030 Leadership Award?

I am exceedingly honored, and truly humbled to receive this award.  Others deserve it.  I was in the right place at the right time to advance our municipal energy and sustainability work, but it was the work that others did that made it successful.  I suppose I was the face of this work; so many others were the legs and arms!


What do you wish to see for the future of sustainability and growth in Grand Rapids?

The last contract I signed before turning the keys over to Mayor Bliss was with a power developer to build out solar at Butterworth Landfill.  That developer failed to perform.  I understand that Butterworth is now back on the table and I am delighted.  Alison Waske Sutter is leading an impressive body of work in the Office of Sustainability, and I can think of no one better than she to be the leader of this all-important work.  I am also greatly encouraged that my grandson, Micah Huppert, is working as an intern in Alison’s Office of Sustainability.  Micah, whose degree from Northern Michigan University in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in renewable energy, is emblematic of the next generation dedicated to this work.  I am history.  Micah, Alison, and all of you who work in this field are the future.


“Michigan is one of the top 5 states for clean energy commitments, number two in the country in drawing down federal funding for climate and clean energy, and number one in the Midwest for clean energy jobs, clean energy growing twice as fast as the overall economy,” said Cheri Holman, Executive Director of USGBC-WM. “These investments by the federal government, concrete action from the state, and the  collaboration inside our community has energized me like never before.”

Former Mayor, George Heartwell was awarded at our 2023 Annual Party & Leadership Awards Ceremony on December 5, 2023. Hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan, the evening event was held in the Ballroom at the LEED-certified CityFlatsHotel located in downtown Grand Rapids. The program included a keynote address by Dr. Brandy Brown, Chief Innovation Officer of Walker-Miller Energy Services, an Awards Ceremony, and the celebration of this year’s achievements.  

To learn more about the event and to read our 2023 Annual Report visit our Annual Party & Leadership Awards Ceremony page.